Learning a new language requires putting in a little effort every day, and practicing whenever you have the opportunity. In this post, you’ll find six tips you can use to learn Mandarin, or any other foreign language, on your own.
When I first moved to Beijing in 2001, I didn’t want to spend hours in classes learning how to say “I have a red pencil,” so I chose self-study over formal classes. (I do have a red pencil, though, and I talk about it all the time.) In this, the second post in the “Getting the most out of living abroad” series, you’ll get advice for learning a new language on your own. Along the way, you might also earn a restraining order, but by the end you’ll hopefully know how to talk your way out of it.
Even if you’ve already been living in a different country for a year, but don’t yet speak the language, these tips will help you get out of that expat bubble so you can learn the language, and get to know the people and culture of your temporary home.
(Throughout the rest of this post, I’m going to refer to learning Mandarin Chinese. These tips work for learning other languages as well, so if you’re living in Spain and are trying to learn Spanish, then just replace Chinese with Spanish. If you’re living in Spain and trying to learn Chinese, some of these tips will help you, though the Spaniards might find it a bit odd that you insist on always speaking Chinese to them.)
1. Get over being afraid to speak on the first day
One of the biggest hurdles to learning a new language is being afraid to use what you’re learning with native speakers. It’s easy to convince yourself that you are going to wait until you are comfortable with the language before starting to use it. Three years from now, you’ll be on a plane back to the US admitting to the person next to you that you never got around to it. Lame.
Start now. Here’s how you say hello in Chinese (phonetically): “Knee-how.” Try it. Good job! If you are at home, open your front door and walk up to the first person you see. Yeah, that old lady across the hall will do fine. Walk up to her and say, “Knee-how.” Ok, now smile, wave, and go back home. Lock your door just in case she sends her grandson after you. Congratulations, you overcame your fears! (Sorry if it leads to police questioning and a restraining order later in the day; it was an important first step.)
Start right when you arrive in the new country, or, better yet, start today. If you don’t, you’ll just keep making pathetic excuses.
2. Study in cafes, bars, and restaurants
If you’re living in China, why would you sit at home and study? If you want to learn the language, go somewhere where they are actually speaking it — outside.
Study in a coffee shop, or a restaurant, or somewhere else where people are speaking Chinese. And don’t hide the fact that you’re learning the language. It’s commendable, be proud of it.
When people see you studying they might even come talk to you. Sadly, they’ll probably just want to practice their English with you. Just make polite conversation for a minute, and then ask, “Can you tell me how to pronounce that.” You now have a free Chinese tutor (just when they thought they were getting a free English one)!
3. Learn a little bit every day — practice what you learn excessively
When learning a new language, people frequently block out an hour of their day to memorize new vocabulary and grammatical structures. This may be moderately effective when you’re, say, learning Chinese while living in the US and have no access to anyone who speaks Chinese (i.e., you live in the one town in the US that doesn’t have a Chinese restaurant).
If you’re learning Chinese while living in China, spend a short amount of time (10–30 minutes) each day learning new vocabulary or a new grammatical structure, and spend the rest of your allotted study-time trying to find opportunities to use those new words or structures. Don’t try to learn more than 5 words in one day (I like aiming for 2–3, personally), or more than one new grammatical structure. Throughout the day, use each of the new words or structures you learn at least 3 times, though 5 is better.
It’s unimportant how many words you have learned and forgotten; what actually matters is how many you can recognize and use. Spend less time memorizing dozens of words, and more time using the few words you learn every day.
4. Talk to everyone, especially at the beginning
You’ve already talked to one old lady, and now may have a restraining order out against you. Sorry again about that, but it was an important milestone; your first restraining order always is.
Something that makes language learning easier in China is that everyone seems impressed by a foreigner who can speak some Chinese. They are happy you’re making an effort, and will do their best to understand you, so talk to everyone you can. When you’re in a taxi, chat with the cab driver — use the new words you learned the night before. Every time you interact with a native speaker, you have a chance to practice; don’t waste it.
If you’re learning French while living in Paris, you’re probably out of luck on this one. I guess you have to get used to the snarky comments and scrunched noses. Just remind them that there’s a reason they are no longer a world power. (If you’re French, please ignore that last comment, your country will always be a world power in my mind.)
5. Keep trying, you’ll hear those tones eventually
One of the most intimidating aspects of Chinese is the tones. Reproducing them when you speak is hard enough, but trying to recognize them when someone is talking at you can be overwhelming.
You have to trust me: one day you’ll suddenly start hearing the tones. About three months after I first moved to China in 2001 I woke up one day and could suddenly make out the tones. It was startling; maybe I had reached some sort of a dumpling quota without realizing it.
Just keep trying to produce the tones when you’re speaking, and listening for them when you’re talking with someone. One day, you’ll be chewing on a dumpling and suddenly all the tones will spring to life.
6. Focus on speaking and listening at first
This is very specific to learning Chinese, or any other language that uses Chinese characters. At first, just focus on speaking and listening, and ignore reading and writing.
Chinese characters are actually quite interesting, and not menacing after you learn a few of them. But if you’re a beginner, it’s just going to make it harder to learn the language.
Focus on basic vocabulary and grammatical structures. Strive to hear and reproduce the tones. You’ll reach a point when you’ll need to learn to read to continue building your vocabulary, but that’s not something you should worry about yet.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Becoming proficient in a new language takes time, but with a little bit of work every day it’s within your reach. If you’re living abroad, then there is no reason not to start learning the new language today. Even if you’ve been living in China for years and can barely speak any Chinese, you can choose to start at any time.
You just have to make a commitment and chip away at it every day. Remember that it’s a long haul — treat it like a marathon. You have to build up very slowly and pace yourself. If you splurge and spend all weekend locked away memorizing vocabulary, by Monday you won’t know where to start.
If you’re strapped for time, spend 10 minutes each evening learning 1–2 new words, and then use them the next day. Then, add another 1–2 words and use those (plus the first 2) the following day. Build up slowly and eventually you’ll be teaching the locals a thing or two. And maybe you’ll even be able to persuade them to lift that restraining order.
This is the second post in the “Getting the most out of living abroad” series. Read the first post in the series, where you’ll learn about living in the expat bubble, and how to break out of it.
Language learning resources
- Although it has been a while, I remember using a Pimsleur book to study Mandarin when I first moved to Beijing. I think the original book I used is out of print, but this audiobook looks promising and should be similar: Pimsleur’s Conversational Mandarin Chinese (affiliate link).
- New Practical Chinese Reader: Textbook 1 (affiliate link) is frequently used in China as a classroom textbook; I have used some of the more advanced editions for self-study. As the name suggests, this also includes reading, so you may not want to start with this book (unless you’re ignoring Tip 6).
- Reading and Writing Chinese (Simplified Character edition) (affiliate link) is one of my favorite books for learning Chinese characters. I have the traditional character edition.
- If you’re interested in language learning software, I recommend Fluenz over Rosetta Stone. Though I’ve only previewed their Mandarin course, I own the Spanish one and love it (though, sadly, I haven’t made much time to use it to improve my Spanish).
- As the name suggests, the site Mandarin Tools has a lot of different tools to help you learn Mandarin.
- zhongwen.com is also a great resource when you begin learning Chinese characters.
- You should also check out my Starting up in China blog to learn more about entrepreneurship and innovation in China.
If you have any questions, or other tips on learning languages, please leave your comments in the “What do you think?” section below.